The Filmmaker’s Filmmaker: Antoine Fuqua
With films such as Training Day, Shooter, King Arthur and Brooklyn’s Finest, Antoine Fuqua is definitely one of Hollywood’s A-List movie directors.
The Pittsburgh native has carved out his niche as one of the last of the real men’s tough, masculine film directors who brings a commitment and intensity with every new project.
And now with his new action flick, Olympus Has Fallen with Gerard Butler, Morgan Freeman and Angela Bassett, Fuqua delivers a high-octane heart-stopping thriller sure to be a favorite with audiences.
Recently we had an opportunity to talk with Fuqua about his career, how he was first drawn to directing movies, and what he thinks the future holds for filmmaking and the rapidly changing movie industry.
N’DIGO: I saw Olympus Has Fallen in a theater with an audience that really got into the film. They were “oohing” and “aahing” and even talking back to the screen. As a director, is that what you live for?
Antoine Fuqua: That’s what you live for!
When you’re directing a film, do you know when it’s working or are you always saying to yourself: “Hmmm, how is this going to play to the audience?”
You feel it in your gut. I put myself in the place of the audience because I love movies and as a collective experience. I sit back when I’m looking at a script and I can feel it. I mark it. I can feel what I want out of that moment that I want you to feel and I try to capture that. Normally I know it. When I’m doing it, when it’s working: “Great! Print it! Let’s move on.” That’s what I’m looking for.
It’s like reading something in a script that’s a joke. If you bust out laughing and everybody in the room busts out laughing, that’s what the audience is going to do, too. Sometimes we over think that, that instinct. Like you see an action happen on the screen and you go: “Aw man, that made me jump!”
That’s the same way the audience is going to see it, too, for the first time because it’s all part of that collective experience. So when I first read the script I can feel it and if it stays consistent through the development process, I still feel it, when I shoot it, I feel it, and when I get to editing it, if it’s still there, then my instincts are telling me that it was right.
What do you look for in a script?
Something that I can relate to creatively and find a way in that works for me. You read the script as a “big idea.” Like, Olympus is a big bold idea – a group of terrorists take down the White House and capture the President of the United States. That’s a big, huge, fun idea.
So I go that’s fun, that’s interesting, but how can I ground it for me and give it substance? How can I make a thriller within the action? How can I give it drama and emotion within the action? I look at the script and say what do I care about. What’s my message? What’s the hero’s journey?
The essence of it is classic Joseph Campbell. You have a fallen hero and you have him saying to the universe: “I want back in.” He took an oath in the Secret Service to God and country to serve and protect, and then pulled himself out of it because of a tragedy.
So his punishment is, to get back in it, he has to go through hell. And if you can come out when the sun rises and all the dust settles and you’re still standing, you get another chance at life. That’s a clear journey.
But he has to take his hits and go through struggle and blood to the brink of destruction – him as well as the rest of the country – and yet you have to save yourself and be able to walk away. That’s important to me. I look for these things. I look for that hero’s journey.
Why did you choose film directing, as opposed to say writing or painting, as your form of artistic expression?
That’s a good question because I love music. I grew up in a musical house…Harvey Fuqua was my cousin, the Moonglows and all that. But when I was a kid I loved movies. It was the most powerful feeling in the world to watch movies like Shane…
Yes, but everyone loves movies. What made you say, “That’s what I want to do…to create movies for the screen?”
Well, when I went to college I took a baroque art class and I discovered Caravaggio. I discovered Rembrandt and Delacroix and their work is very powerful. Caravaggio paintings had deep light and shadows; it was almost like movement.
One of his paintings is Jesus on the cross and you can see one guy with his spear digging into his ribs and you can see the vividness of that image. And I remember one Delacroix painting of Napoleon in battle and you can see the color red and the blood and the flags waving and that brunt orange sky. And then there was Rembrandt with his use of lights and shadows.
Just before that time I saw Akira Kurosawa’s film The Seven Samurai for the first time and was like, “WOW!” What a beautiful black and white movie. I remember thinking that it was amazing with all this black smoke and stuff in the film, the vivid texture of it. I’d never seen that before.
So when I saw these paintings it reminded me of Kurosawa’s moving pictures and something about that made me think, “How I can create that sort of deep pain, but as a moving story?”
How did you go from that to actually directing movies?
I had a cousin who went to college with a guy who had a company making music videos in New York. I talked to him and asked, “How do you make movies? I don’t really know.”
He said come out to New York and I’ll give you a job as a production assistant and we’ll see how you like it. So I went on the set and watched everybody’s job – the assistant director’s, the director of photography. I looked through the camera, sat in the editing room, and then I decided where I felt more comfortable and it was really in the director’s chair.
Why that chair?
Because as cameraman it was like painting and I loved it, but it wasn’t always my vision. So that got me to thinking that I wanted to able to paint my own pictures and tell my own stories. I wanted to be able to be in control of those elements and those feelings.
It was something that kept coming to me and finally I said, “That’s where I want to be.” It’s a strange thing when that happens, you know, because in retrospect I can think of many things in my life that led to it, but I would have never known it then.
You’re fortunate because so few people actually do what they really like or were led to do.
That is true! But also it’s a matter of testing yourself. Back when I was starting out in New York, I was going through a pretty tough period. I was living in Harlem on 125th Street, and Harlem wasn’t exactly the nicest place back during the late 1980s and all.
I had saved up about five grand from working as a production assistant for my rent and food and everything else. But I had an idea for this five-minute short film I wrote called Exit. And a voice said to me, “Well, if you’re going to direct, then you better direct something!”
So I got together with some friends and used the money I saved and we shot it. Then I sent it out to all the record labels hoping to get a job directing a music video out of it. A woman at Island Records saw it with Chris Blackwell and Chris loved it. He thought I was French!
He mentioned it to Bono and U2 and they got interested and then from that Chris showed it to Propaganda Films, the music video TV commercial production house. At the time they had guys like David Fincher working for them and they said, “Hey let’s see if we can get this guy something.”
They gave me some little music video to shoot. The video stayed No. 1 for two weeks and everything went off from there. And back then it wasn’t all thongs and women like they do now. Back then you could take an artistic approach in music videos. And from that I’ve never stopped working; I’ve never stopped working.
What’s your take on how the film business has changed in the last few years? If it was hard to make a film back then, it’s almost impossible today.
Oh yeah, it’s hard. It’s hard to get the money. But Hollywood is always going to be Hollywood, man. It goes just beyond business. People will always come together and enjoy storytelling – that’s happened from the beginning of time with cavemen making shadows on the wall. There’s always going to be that.
But what I do think the future holds is that technology has allowed people who truly have talent to be seen. Opportunity will come out of the technology, meaning that if you have $5,000 now, you can take a digital camera and go make your movie. You just go do it.
And in a way, no one is judging you on your lighting or production values; they’re going to judge you on your storytelling ability – if you can bring that to life and make them forget the tools you used to get it and just tell a good story in a creative way, in a unique way.
For example, Beasts of the Southern Wild. The guy pulled it off, first movie. Down in the swamp, down and dirty. And that little girl and that guy who is her father…amazing! I remember the first time I saw (Thomas Vinterberg’s) The Celebration – all digital, shot in a house about one family and all their craziness.
Filmmakers will find a way. You just have to take technology and use it. That’s the inspiration. Scorsese and Coppola, back when they were making films in the ‘70s, they were making it up, they were creating their own way.
They would take a camera and put it on a stick and do some amazing things, man. Now we have technology to do that, that they didn’t have back then and yet they are still the films that we reference. So there’s an energy in that, there’s a creativity in that, there’s a veracity in that. That’s the future. The future is…find a way.